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Ribbons

Monday’s lover tugs at Jan’s ribbon with his teeth. Jan doesn’t yell at the lover to stop. The guy just received bad news from the front—a friend lost to a bomb, perhaps, a sibling blown to bits; Jan doesn’t ask. He tells the lover, instead, to be careful: We don’t want my head rolling off now, do we? We’ve all heard of them, after all, the stories of women taking it off and their heads falling to the ground.

Monday’s lover nods and keeps his teeth to himself. Says he’s never seen a guy with a ribbon before.

What can I say, love? Jan tells him. I’m special.

Jan is a name he chose himself, early on, for it secretly reminded him of Janus, the god of change and passages.

Yes you are, the lover says as he kisses the scars on Jan’s chest, his eyes that lustful color lovers get in the half-dark of his little room. Have you been conscripted yet? he asks.

I’m waiting my turn, Jan lies.

Silently, he counts the days. Only a week left until induction.

The lover tells him the stories of his own scars then, how he got some of them on the battlefield and others in the dark wooded area on our northern border where witches and snakes make your wishes come true in return for a bit of finger or a first-born child. And when he’s done with his own he tells Jan the stories of a soldier friend of a soldier friend and his seven sisters who grew out of a tree in their mother’s garden, one every year, much to their mother’s delight, until their father went and chopped it down with an axe.

Jan only half-listens to him. The ribbon cuts into his skin and the knot at the back chafes his neck, and so he runs his hands up and down the man’s torso to keep them from fumbling with it. He wishes he remembered how he got his ribbon, but he’s found few people ever remember how theirs or their child’s appeared. Was it given? Did it grow from the skin? Was it the result of a deal some ancestor made with a spirit living under the river?

Maybe, if he knew, he’d know how to take it off without losing his head.

And, is that all he would lose?

He’s asked others how they got theirs, but no one would give him a straight answer. Still, he catalogues them in his mind, and runs through them now and then, when he feels the most desperate and lost: One trans woman told him she’s had her ribbon since birth; another that it appeared some time into her transition, overnight and without warning. Some enbies don’t have and never get one. Among those who do have them, some seem to love them, while others conceal them with high-collared shirts and turtlenecks; and then there are those who, as far as Jan knows, are content with loose ribbons they buy at the market. They tie them around their necks some days, then remove them, then tie them again when the mood strikes or the need dictates.

Jan wishes his ribbon would disappear the way that trans woman’s had appeared—and what does it mean for his own manhood that it didn’t?

He hasn’t met any other trans men he could ask. Perhaps, if he just accepted it, Jan thinks, he could learn to be happy. Perhaps that’s what all the other trans men out there have been doing, or maybe they’re just born without ribbons, like most men. Besides, people are getting blown up at the border. The world is burning and I’m thinking about a ribbon? What a selfish, worthless son of a bitch.

He asks himself: Who do you think you are that you can reject this?

Who do you think you are that you can escape?

And yet, in the next breath he dares wonder: Will it feel like a shedding? Like a molting? Will I be naked without it?

When the lover pays and leaves, Jan opens the windows wide to let the man’s smell out. In the light of day, his place looks strange, no longer a low-ceilinged cocoon built of fabric and carpets and hanging fairy lights, but a small, concrete prison, its damp and dirt and ugliness only hastily concealed.

The woman who lives across the street leans against her own window. She touches her ribbon absently with the tips of her fingers, the bright green matching the color of her eyes. People say she’s enchanted, but who isn’t, in this country, this place of animal hides kept in boxes, magic flutes that make you follow the one who breathes into them, veils that descend upon your eyes unexpected and make you see the world different.

He doesn’t always hate his ribbon. He likes the way it makes his neck look longer when he wears a plunging neckline that shows off the dip between his collarbones and the hard-earned flatness of his chest. The way the ends sometimes move in the breeze and tickle the back of his neck. Perhaps, he thinks, he ought to always hate it. Perhaps that is his mistake.

Six days to go and the Painter lies next to him; he breathes in the pinewood scent of her hair, runs his tongue across her neck, wetting her ribbon as she slips her fingers into him and he gasps.

Afterwards, she asks to paint him and Jan tells her okay, but I don’t want to be painted with a ribbon.

She takes a large notepad out of her bag, a piece of charcoal. She has him sit propped up against the peeling green wall. Don’t move, she says, and her charcoal flies across the page in quick, bold strokes. When she’s done, he moves to peek, but she hides the paper and asks for his lips first. Everything must be bartered for around here, after all. He kisses her deeply, the taste of her mouth reminding him of the wild berries that grow along the forest paths and make your tongue tingle if you pick them at the wrong time of day or kill you if you pick them with a false heart.

She smirks and reveals the portrait.

A young man leaning back on an unmade bed. Full lips, a soft jawline, wispy hair. Sharp shoulders, long neck. No ribbon.

Jan passes his fingers over him, ruining his pretty, clean lines.

Wednesday’s lover is a challenge: he just became human again after spending a few years as a bird. Some enchantment or other. A nettle shirt, perhaps, a kiss gone wrong. Jan knows better than to ask after other people’s curses.

The Procurer brings the birdman to Jan’s door, says the man’s family came to find her, and can he be discreet, as if he’s ever anything else. As if he needs to do anything other than be and walk around and breathe for people to notice him: a fake to the haters, a curiosity to the lovers. A lovely freak.

The Procurer is a war vet. This place belongs to her, but she’s happy to let Jan live here. She uses her network to find him clients; there’s no shortage of people lonely and broken by the war among her friends, people who can use a non-judgy companion, or indeed a lovely freak. She ushers the birdman in now, and Jan expects to see one of his arms is still a bird wing, but no, both arms are human, a young man’s arms, a boy’s really. His family and friends think him uncanny, the Procurer says, and he’s finding it hard to adjust. Jan pictures him looking around as if he just woke up from a long sleep, and peering at his loved ones vacantly, as if asking, these people, who are they? Have I met them before?

So they brought him to me, Jan says.

The Procurer nods. They thought, perhaps, you would understand him the best.

When they’re alone, Jan lets the birdman be, and he chooses a high chair next to the shuttered window to perch on and preen his clothes.

Jan takes the bed and stares at the birdman. Finally, he thinks. Someone who doesn’t give a shit about my ribbon.

He drifts off. He imagines what the war is like up close, which he does more and more as the time approaches. Tries to visualize the battlefield, to conjure up what it will smell like, sound like. Sees himself in it. Pictures his body obliterated in an explosion, ripped apart at the seams.

Eventually, they do talk. It’s Jan who coaxes the man into speaking.

What kind of bird were you? he asks.

The birdman looks at him sideways, as if his eyes were still located at the side of his head. He shrugs. Do you think birds have names for themselves?

He’s right, Jan supposes. They can fly. What use could birds possibly have for words? But then the birdman tells him about izkora and tekeli-li and something else Jan doesn’t understand, names the birds make up on the wing and quickly forget and replace with others when the wind calls for it or when they touch the ground, because birds can’t hold onto anything on the ground, and they can never look down with anything but dread. He still has nightmares about that, the birdman says, and he sometimes feels like he’s losing his grip on things, his name and other people’s and the names of objects and verbs, just by being on the ground.

He also tells Jan about the time he flew over to the west and to that magicless country with its cars and its phones and its polluting oil they so desperately want from us now, and he fell in love with a human who captured him and sold him off to an eccentric who treated his birds like people and let them out after breakfast and put them back in their cages after supper, and then the war and then this city.

The birdman forgets his words.

If he let you out, why didn’t you leave? Jan prompts.

The birdman holds out his arms, palms up, thinking about his answer for some time.

Jan watches the way the birdman moves: awkwardly, still clumsy, as if ill-fitting to this life of legs, this featherless existence.

It’s hard to be like this, the birdman says eventually, you know?

Yeah, Jan says. I know.

Thursday’s lover doesn’t turn up. Jan is fond of all his regular clients, but most of all he’s fond of her: of her body, slight like a boy’s, all milky smoothness and bold colors and wild braids and rings through her eyebrows, her lips always painted and her eyeliner glittering like her eyes; of the way she doesn’t ask to be held so much as pushes herself into him, an expert of long-distance embraces by virtue of having lost so many to the war; of the way she talks to him as if he were not strange at all.

Jan retraces the last time they were together in his mind, looking for anything that might explain why she missed their appointment: Did he do something that hurt her? Is she ill? Did something happen to her?

He remembers her being a bit more skittish than usual, a bit more distracted. Perhaps she grew tired of him? Perhaps she just decided to call off their sessions—but then she’d already paid for today. Moment by moment, he replays their meeting again, even more slowly now: the nervous hello, her eyeshadow smudged as if she’d been crying but, when asked, said it was rainwater, and it was indeed raining that day, the clouds rolling in heavy and dark from the west. His breath hitching when she unbuttoned her shirt despite having seen her naked so many times before, the tenderness then, so unlike her. Was she saying goodbye? They lay side by side, afterwards, and he traced her ribbon with his fingers and asked, Ever thought of getting rid of it?

She blinked at him, no never, as if he’d asked the most absurd thing in the world, and that was the first time he realized not everybody struggles with their ribbon—either its presence or its lack. It’d never crossed his mind before that someone could be at ease with it, one way or another; that they were not all fighting and pretending to be something they weren’t. There really are people who don’t think about their ribbons constantly? Who don’t spend days fantasizing about how to remove them?

He wondered, then, what it would feel like to not live his life with this unceasing noise in the background, that deep, dull ache, that dark obsession.

Really? he asked again to make sure.

She said she didn’t mind it at all, and he believed her because of the carefree way she said it. It wasn’t even that she wasn’t worried about her head rolling off if she did remove the ribbon; it was as if she’d just never given it any thought and it’d never given her any pain.

But still Jan wondered if she was telling the truth.

Now he waits for her the entire day, pacing his room, opening the windows and then closing them again. He thumbs his ribbon and then his lips and at night as he gets into his pristine bed he thinks, Jan, what a fool you are, falling for a girl that pays you to fuck you.

Three days left and the Procurer tells him Thursday girl was conscripted. She’d already received the order by the time she last saw Jan but never reported for duty; instead, she disappeared. Some say she defected, others that she turned into an animal.

Jan thanks the Procurer for the information and then thinks that perhaps he ought to do the same: head for the woods once more, strike a bargain, be transformed, then transformed again.

He did try to make a bargain one time. A single year of life without a ribbon, and then the witch could have his heart, his liver, his bones, whatever other gory piece of him she desired. But she felt sorry for him and called it off at the last minute. She said, your head might still roll off, eventually, ribbon or not. You’ll only be giving me things and getting so very little in return.

But no, he could never run away. Reflex tells him this isn’t the way of men, but that’s bullshit and he knows it, so it must be something else that pulls him towards that battlefield; a penchant for self-destruction. A weakness, perhaps, a curse.

He takes the day off. Puts on his favorite jacket, green velvet with brass buttons and pockets he likes to push his thumbs into, and an old-fashioned black cap with a curly feather tucked in its band. He ambles through the city with its beggars and its rich and its poor and its cobblestone roads and its parks and its statues, with its towers that are guarded by dragons and its unsaved queens and its labyrinthine, narrow alleys overgrown with thorns. He ventures into the woodwork district, idly browsing the store windows and their ersatz butterflies, the trapped birds, the magic doors, until he finds his way down to the river. There, halfway across the Bridge of Small Mercies, he pauses and gazes at the slow-moving water below. He spots a green ribbon caught in the reeds of the riverbank, wonders how it got there. Was it bought? Was it torn? Was it given away?

When his mother died, she left him her ribbon. He never found out how she removed it, if it happened post-mortem or if that was the reason she died. He simply found it on his bed, coiled like a tiny green snake. He didn’t want to keep that ribbon, either, but he did learn to cherish it. Mother always said you have to be grateful for the things you have, even if you never wanted them.

The balustrade is rough under his palms, but the water below soothes him in its forever motion. He imagines Thursday girl as a swan, her mighty wings thundering as she takes off over the water.

He thinks of the stories he knows about the river:

that it’s easier to drown in than any other water;

that the water here never freezes on its surface, no matter how cold the winter, but ice forms beneath it; that beneath the ice, there’s a place you can breathe;

that animals find refuge in the river, that they have names in the river’s language which humans cannot pronounce, and that, when the animals die, they turn into people you find along the riverbanks, corpses smiling, and you say, there, that’s someone who lived a happy life;

that the river has seen a lot in its long travels and sometimes it dreams of moving on, rendering the city riverless and dry;

that sometimes, it stretches its long limbs across the entire city, as if to test what it would feel like to go;

that, when it does that, it floods certain people’s dreams and speaks its names, and when that happens you must name your children after it, even if you can’t pronounce the words;

or not have children at all, spare them and the world a curse;

that, when the city is quiet, say at night, you can hear the river breathe.

At night, Jan tries that. Instead of the river’s breath, his dreams are filled with people turning into animals, great big boars and slender-horned antelopes, and with nettle shirts and shedding all his feathers one by one. They float down the river and whoever finds one will be forever cursed. Their skin will grow needles that they will have to use to embroider their children’s eyelids, and then their children will be able to see a future so distant that everything around them will already seem a wasteland, and they will want to travel but only the river will be there to guide them, and the trees naked and dead, petrified songbirds perching on their branches with ribbons caught in their beaks.

Saturday goes by in a blur, and Jan thinks it a tremendous waste, so he decides to work on Sunday, too, because he doesn’t feel like being alone on his last day.

It’s the client’s first time with Jan, and he turns out to be a tall, muscular guy—square jaw, short hair, jacket ripped at the shoulders to show off his big arms, a proper war vet, entirely unremarkable. Jan doesn’t mind. He pulls the man in and makes him sit on the bed to do his usual informal interview; if he’s good at it, the clients never know they’re being interviewed—and he’s good at it. They chat for a while and Jan deems him safe, so he nods and sits next to him on the bed, his hand resting casually on the man’s knee.

So how do you know the Procurer? Jan asks.

The man looks at him, as if he’s weighing Jan as well, measuring his mettle; it makes him squirm a little where he sits, and that’s when Jan perceives the softness in the corners of the man’s eyes, the laugh lines, the subtle tremors of his hands. He must be satisfied with what he sees in Jan, too, because he lies back on the bed and stares at the ceiling, relaxed, as if he’s been in this room a thousand times before and can share with Jan the easy familiarities of old friends.

We were in the same section, the man says. I was there when half her squad was blown up. We were tasked with making sure no one crossed the border…no rebels, no soldiers, no civilians. We were told to shoot anyone who tried to run. And I…

He trails off, closes his eyes, and presses his thumbs against them.

Things were demanded of me that I wasn’t willing to give, he continues. Big, macho guy, that’s all people see.

He returns to sitting on the bed again and looks at Jan, who’s wrapped his arms around himself, hands hidden in his armpits. Are you okay? the man asks. What’s wrong?

Sure, Jan replies, forcing himself to release his hands and let them hang loosely at his sides.

I can go if you’re not feeling up to this, the man says. He pauses, waits a moment, then adds: I need someone who’s okay, you know?

I lost someone, Jan blurts out.

Who?

Jan tells him about Thursday’s lover as he brews a hibiscus tea and pours it into his brightly colored glass cups.

The man drinks his tea as he listens and then he undresses without responding. Jan tries not to stare at his swollen pecs, the deep lines crisscrossing his back and chest, the star-shaped scar on his shoulder blade. He fails. He moves up and puts his fingers on that star, he can’t help it.

The man turns around and grabs his hand. Jan fixates on the man’s ribbonless neck. Thinks, irrationally, how handsome a ribbon would look there.

Slowly, the man brings Jan’s hand to his lips and kisses the fingertips that touched his skin. It’s something else, too, I can tell, he says.

Jan shrugs. My ribbon, he says. Feels tight lately. Tighter and tighter.

Why don’t you take it off?

Jan lets out a laugh. What? Haven’t you heard what happens?

The rolling heads. The necks ripped open, the torsos like chopped down trees standing in their dresses.

I have, the man says. But stories is all they are. You don’t know what will happen.

Other people…Jan starts to say, but the man cuts him off.

Other people are other people. Maybe those women wanted to destroy themselves and that’s why their heads rolled off. Maybe their ribbons meant something different to them than yours does to you. He pauses. Do you want your ribbon?

Jan shakes his head. It’s choking me, he says. I’ll die with it on my neck. It’s a noose.

Okay then. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to understand why you have it or to come up with a rule that explains who else in the world does, or account for everyone else who wants one or doesn’t. You don’t need a unified theory of ribbons to decide yours is not for you.

You’ve given this some thought, then, have you? Jan asks. It comes out harsh, like an accusation, and Jan doesn’t know why. But the man gives him a look—open, unarmed—that makes all of Jan’s brief anger dissipate: his how-dare-yous and who-do-you-think-you-ares. The shame of his reaction, too. He thinks of the birdman then, how Jan was content to let him be the way he needed to be. He didn’t ask the birdman to justify his feelings. Why should Jan?

The man takes Jan’s hand and pulls him next to him on the bed. He smells like fallen leaves and, perhaps, the river. Jan catches himself eager to stay like this for a while, inhaling him.

You know, I met another boy with a ribbon, once, long ago, the man says.

Truly?

He nods.

Did he ever take it off?

He never wanted to, the man says.

Then when they lie together in bed, the man on his back and Jan on his side, he admires the man’s strong torso, the long limbs, the hardness of him. I want him, Jan admits to himself, and I want to be him.

You’re scared you’ll change, the man says, and that’s okay.

I’m scared I’ll disappear, Jan thinks of saying, and somehow he’s sure the man would understand what that’s like, too. I’ve been conscripted, Jan says instead, causing the man to push himself up on his elbows and look at Jan’s face, a dark look in his eyes.

Don’t do that, he says. Run away.

Jan can sense the wound in his voice, the shrapnel buried there.

I have to, Jan says.

Why? the man asks.

Jan pulls him back down to the mattress, a gentle hand on his broad chest. Love, he says. You know better than to ask after other people’s curses.

He lets it go.

Then, Jan asks, What do you want? And the man says, I want to be taken. Make me feel weak.

Jan reports for duty the next day.

When they give him his uniform, he puts it on and stands in front of a mirror. He inspects himself, his slender body clad in dark green, the cap that fits snuggly over his head. He imagines the war: dusty fields sown with poppies and soldier parts, deep underground shelters, sealed metal doors that open into a great body of water.

He looks at his ribbon, lifts his hand to touch its length. Then he holds one end between forefinger and thumb and pulls and pulls until the ribbon gives and the knot comes undone. He tugs once more and feels the fabric slide silky over his skin and then he waits for the other sensation, the rip, the tilt, but the ribbon simply comes away, and it’s fine. Nothing happens. It’s fine.

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Natalia Theodoridou

Natalia Theodoridou has published over a hundred short stories, most of them dark and queer, in magazines such as Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nightmare, and F&SF, among others. He’s won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the Nebula Award for Game Writing with his first Choice of Games project, Rent-a-Vice. Natalia holds a PhD in Media from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and is a Clarion West graduate. He was born in Greece, with roots in Russia, Georgia, and Turkey. Find out more at www.natalia-theodoridou.com or follow @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

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